tclakin

The Hall That Mike Built

In Uncategorized on September 11, 2009 at 3:32 pm

Michael Jordan will be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame tonight – a formality that’s akin to Ernest Hemingway winning a spelling bee or Albert Einstein getting an A on a science fair project.

Of course Michael Jordan belongs in the Hall of Fame. Hell, Michael Jordan is the Hall of Fame.

People often ask me why I steadfastly refuse to agree that one day we’ll see another Jordan. They grit their teeth and say I’m living in the past, blinded by nostalgia and rose-colored glasses. My Game 6 post dismissing the LeBron vs. Jordan debate as foolish and wildly premature has inspired more comments than all my other columns combined. Just Google “Lebron vs. Jordan” or “Kobe vs. Jordan” and you’ll quickly understand the fierce passion flowing beneath any questioning of MJ’s legacy. It’s almost like partisan politics at this point. Either you’re a Jordan guy, or you’re a LeBron or Kobe guy. There’s no middle ground.

But, as a Jordan guy, what really frustrates me about the whole debate is this:

There is no debate. There actually is a right answer, and that right answer is that Jordan is the single greatest basketball phenomenon of all time and there will never be another one like him.

Ever.

Period.

This is when all the crazies slam their fist on the bar and yell, “You don’t know that for sure! Do you have a crystal ball or something?” And I’ll calmly lean back, smile, and explain that I don’t need a crystal ball to know that there won’t ever be another MJ.

I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that there will never be another Michael Jordan whether you want to admit it or not, because Michael Jordan – as an entity, as a brand, as a soaring basketball comet, for God’s sake – emerged from a perfect storm of factors that transcend basketball and will never be replicated.

Skinny little Mike Jordan from Wilmington, North Carolina became Michael Jordan, the global, billboard-sized icon, because of the historic convergence of three things:

Talent, timing, and sheer golden-goose style luck.

Yes, Michael Jordan was a magical basketball player, easily the best the game has ever seen. He was quick, he could soar, and he could shoot the lights out.

That’s not to say that there will never be a better player. To say that is to ignore progress and to turn your back on something that seems rather inevitable. But what we do know for certain is that there won’t ever be a better player who also has the good fortune of coming along at exactly the right time, with exactly the right kind of charisma. And that’s where the timing and luck come in.

Michael Jordan emerged at the same time that a fledgling 24-hour cable sports network was getting off the ground, and right after a little-known shoe company in Oregon had gone public. Twenty-five years later and in no small part because of Jordan, these two companies, ESPN and Nike, are household names all over the world.

Yes, just as ESPN was beginning to establish a little elbow room for itself in the television market, along came a kid named Michael Jordan, a player tailor-made for Sportscenter highlights and boundless coverage – just the thing for a budding sports network with countless broadcast hours to fill. With ESPN’s help, the Jordan brand exploded and the Bristol, Connecticut company grabbed ahold of his #23 jersey and rode it all the way to the bank.

At the same time ESPN was beginning to make a name for itself, Nike too had dreams of superiority. Just as Jordan was emerging on the national scene at UNC, the top brass at Nike was feverishly looking for a way to distinguish the company and break out of the running shoe market. They finally settled on a daring plan to create and market a signature basketball shoe around an incoming NBA rookie, in hopes that the player would emerge as a star and thus open the consumer floodgates for the company. The year was 1984, and Nike had a number of viable options to choose from in the NBA draft – Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley, and even John Stockton were all considered. But the decision was ultimately Sonny Vacarro’s (the basketball shoe business legend who would eventually move to Adidas) to make, and the response he gave would transform Nike and alter the course of sporting history:

“The kid from North Carolina.”

And off they went.

Eventually Jordan’s perfect mix of charisma and stunning basketball talent would pave the way for his ascent to the peak of celebrity, but had he come along ten years later than he did – like Kobe, for instance – MJ’s legacy would look a lot different than it does today, the date of his Springfield coronation. ESPN’s constant Jordan highlights and Nike’s breakthrough ad campaign shaped and built “Michael Jordan” into a worldwide brand that only the greatest and most determined athlete could possibly live up to.

Fortunately, Michael Jordan was – is – the greatest and most determined athlete we’ve ever seen. He had spectacular skills, sure, but it was the intangibles that rocketed his game into the stratosphere: Incredible competitiveness, an impossible work ethic, a profound desire to win, and a nastiness that propelled him past concocted rivals and imagined slights.

Clearly Michael Jordan had the talent to be the best, but so have many others before and after him. What MJ had that those others didn’t was the dedication to be the best, and the backing of a corporate structure that fundamentally needed him to succeed. And yes, today both Kobe and LeBron have the muscle of ESPN and Nike behind them (witness the ubiquitous puppet commercials from last season’s NBA playoffs) but the difference now is simple:

ESPN and Nike don’t need Kobe and LeBron. They’re doing just fine as is, thank you very much.

But in 1984, both companies were scrappy start-ups, willing to take just about any risk to get where they wanted to be. They were hungry, and they rolled the dice on Jordan when it appeared he had some potential to be great because they knew he could be their way out of the dark. Today, Nike and ESPN are giants – veritable illustrations of corporate success. No longer are they the market underdogs, with nothing to lose and everything to gain. In a word, they’ve arrived, and neither Kobe nor LeBron can do anything about it. Unfortunately for them and their rabid fans, it will take another ESPN and another Nike to create another Jordan, and that’s not happening any time soon.

Or ever.

The Jordan phenomenon came about because of two things – a sports media revolution and the worldwide explosion of the athlete-celebrity market. It was in the confluence of both that a King was born.

Tonight, he’ll be fitted for his crown.

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